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Research: a critical aspect of getting your undergraduate and graduate degree.

Matthew Hurst (Oxford '21, Manchester '15) completed his MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His professional background is in operations roles with a focus on UK-China projects. He has been a member of delegations between the UK and China, spoken at conferences, and published articles about UK-China. Matthew earned a First Class BA in Philosophy from the University of Manchester, receiving the Dean's Award and three other awards.

This is the second part in a 4-part series featuring Matthew's advice and experience.


Most of the time in school, you are trying to understand and remember what you’ve been taught. At the undergraduate level, in addition to understanding and remembering who said what, you are also expected to express your own opinion. Graduate-level is a little bit different. In an entirely research-based Master's or a taught Master's with a thesis component, you are expected to go beyond understanding and expressing an opinion and move towards creating knowledge.

You will come up with a research question by yourself, identify useful primary sources and the appropriate research methods by which to go about answering this question, execute your research, then communicate this process along with your findings. By answering your own question(s) using the appropriate sources and methods and then communicating this, you are engaging in the activity of creating knowledge. At the high school level, you will have to understand what it is you are talking about; at the undergraduate level, you will have your own opinion about the topic. But beyond this, by applying the right methods to analyzing primary sources, you are conducting research.

So, what is a research question?

Firstly, a research question is a question that there is value in asking. Usually, this will not take the form of a ‘what’ question. ‘What’ questions are too easily answered and tend not to have wider implications. For instance, ‘What was Queen Mary’s favorite ice cream?’ or ‘What happened in Antarctica in 1842?’ Similarly, ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions tend also to be easily answerable: ‘Who was the British monarch in 1666?’, ‘When did John Milton die?’, ‘Where did I leave my house keys?’

A more interesting research question would involve a ‘why’ or a ‘how’. Such questions aim to uncover the mechanisms that underlie human interactions and the workings of the world. Consider these questions (which I have made up out of thin air): ‘Why did England fall to colonial Iceland?’, ‘Why did Queen Mary execute everyone named Paul?’, ‘How do villagers avoid participating in local elections?’, ‘How influential was Rosalind Carmichael to the field of jazz?’ These questions might be delimited by a period (say, 1982-97, the 18th Century, etc.) or a territory (London, South Yorkshire, Wales, the North American continent, etc.) or perhaps even a theme (‘How is satire experienced through the ages?’, ‘Why did bananas become yellower and yellower?’, ‘How has crying been captured in oil paintings?’).

Moreover, your question must also be somehow novel.

It might seek to fill a gap in the literature, seek to challenge an assumption, or reconceptualize a notion. Lastly, it should also have relevance and usefulness. When coming up with a question, ask yourself: So what? Think: If I asked this question, who’s mind am I trying to change? If I found the answer to this question, would it fill an empirical gap or contribute to a debate or change how we perceive anything? Coming up with a valuable research question takes time and your question will often evolve during the course of your research, but it is important to keep a question in mind whilst your research develops.

Once you have a research question, you will set about answering it.

A good first step is to avail yourself of the relevant existing literature. You should read as much as you can about the subject for several reasons: you should check that no one has answered your research question before (or, if they have, that they have not used exactly the same sources, methods, and/or analytic frame as you or that they have come to a different conclusion than the one your anticipate reaching); you should be able to say whom you agree and disagree with (who would have to change their mind upon reading your research), and reading will undoubtedly inform you of something you did not realize before. I have written another blog post about speed reading.

Next, locate (or create) relevant primary sources. Exactly what these primary sources are will be different depending on your discipline. You might be drawing on archive sources, recorded interviews, an item of media, autobiographies, etc. Alternatively, you might be creating your own sources by conducting your own interviews, polls, surveys, etc.

But even the right sources need to be analyzed using the right methods. Research methods are the methods and processes used to understand and interpret sources. An archive is no use on its own! You must employ the right techniques for understanding its contents, the context of production, the creator of the document and their intentions, etc. Sometimes, the line between method and source becomes a little blurred; for instance, drafting a survey or a set of interview questions is itself a technique that can have an impact on the data you collect.

None of this excludes the existing literature. Eventually, when you come to writing up your research, you will be in constant dialogue with the existing literature and borrow information that other people have already figured out for you. But applying the right methods to analyzing appropriate primary sources in pursuit of answering your own, valuable research question must be at the core of graduate writing.

To recap.

In a few sentences, what is the difference between undergraduate and Masters's studies in the humanities?

  • Master is an exercise in creating knowledge through research.

  • Research is the activity of applying the right methods to analyzing appropriate primary sources to answer a valuable research question;

  • This is distinct to pre-Masters level studies because you are building upon your abilities of understanding and expressing an opinion.

For more info on undergraduate research and other college tips, check out our recent article on undergraduate research!


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